Today I’d like to share a few sections that didn’t make the final cut in By Light of Hidden Candles.
Food and drink are an important symbol in the book, signifying both heritage and tradition (as with traditional foods mentioned and the wine Abraham provides to the conversos), and nurturing and connection (the porridge Tomás cooks himself for Abraham and Míriam, the food Manuel buys for Alma in Madrid). This was even more pronounced in the original manuscript where Alma and her grandmother bonded over the art of making couscous, which is a ubiquitous dish in Moroccan cuisine.
The scenes were cut because they didn’t really advance the plot or add anything significant to the characters’ development, but they are sweet moments and contained a few good lines that I was sorry to lose. Also–Josep (of Letters to Josep) either translated or proofread the Spanish dialogue in these scenes, and I felt kinda bad that his efforts went to waste when they were cut… so at least he should get to read the full scenes in which those snippets I sent him originally appeared!
The first scene takes place in Grandma’s apartment in Manhattan. Note that in this version, Grandma actually remembered all the details of the story but was waiting for the right moment to reveal them (whereas in the final version, she suffers from a memory problem and doesn’t remember).
I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, hunched over the coffee table. I was concentrating so hard on my Spanish grammar worksheet that I didn’t even notice her wheeling into the room on her walker and regarding me, one hand on her hip.
“You work too hard,” she said, startling me. I looked up at her, blinking.
“If you want me to get into the honors program so I can do the research, you’re gonna have to live with me working too hard.”
“No se aprende un nuevo idioma estudiando en los libros. ¡Se aprende practicando! Ven, vamos a cocinar cúscus.”
“I understand well enough, it’s speaking that’s the problem.”
“Nu? ¿Qué te acabo de decir? ¡Háblame en castellano!”
“I can’t talk to you in Spanish, Grandma. It’s just too weird.”
“Fine, so don’t learn. Come make couscous with me.”
“I’m busy, Grandma.”
“Fine,” she sighed, slowly wheeling herself into the kitchen. “The art will be forever lost to freeze dried instant sand, but at least you will have finished your homework.”
“Oh, don’t pull the Jewish grandmother thing on me!” I moaned, smiling and gathering my papers to follow her into the kitchen. “I’ll watch while I work.”
I set myself up on the little kitchen table while she pulled out her equipment: the double steamer, the wide-mesh couscous sieve, and several bowls.
“This is not as labor-intensive as people think,” she said as she opened the bag of semolina and peered inside.
“The problem is that you don’t follow recipes, Grandma. If I could write down what you do…”
“Recipes are for people who don’t really understand food. I’ll show you in a minute how a recipe would only complicate this process.” She dumped the semolina into a bowl and then started pouring in oil. She fluffed the oily semolina with her hand. “See? Don’t cook by the book. Cook by feel. Stick your hand in here. Eh eh eh, wash your hand first!” She caught my wrist as I was about to stick it in the bowl. I giggled and walked to the sink to wash my hands. “Here, feel this.”
I put my hand in the bowl and felt the soft, squishy mass of wet semolina. “I feel it. But how am I supposed to remember what it feels like?”
“Make it ten thousand times. Then you can’t go wrong.”
“Oh, that’s helpful.”
She laughed, tossed in a generous pinch of salt, and then started pouring in water.
“If you just threw in half a cup of water, who knows how much the semolina would absorb? It absorbs different amounts of water according to the crop or season, and unless you’re gonna call the Ministry of Agriculture or something and ask how the semolina is doing this season, you really have to do it by feel. Now watch this.” She placed the couscous sieve into a bowl and poured the semolina into it. With the expertise of a woman who had truly done this thousands of times, she gently rolled the semolina around, creating little pellets through the holes of the sieve. When she was done, she emptied the bowl into the top pot of her steamer. “Just gonna let this steam for about half an hour over a medium flame.”
I returned to my worksheet. Grandma sat down across from me and hummed to herself. A few minutes later, I felt my phone buzzing in my pocket, and fished it out. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the name “Manuel” next to the little envelope symbol that meant I had a text message from him.
It read: Hello Alma, this is Manuel. If you were wondering how the negotiations were going, my mother threw the pamphlets in the garbage this morning.
I laughed out loud. My grandmother looked up and shook her head slightly with a questioning look.
I shook my head in a gesture of “Never mind”, texting back: Oy. Good luck!
“Who is he?” my grandmother prodded.
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What do you mean, ‘he’?”
“Am I wrong?” She was grinning knowingly.
I was tongue-tied for a moment. “Well, um, technically it is a he,” I said finally. “How did you know it wasn’t Dana or Julie or anyone else I text with regularly?”
She winked. “You had a look.”
I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
“Well… it’s not what you think. Just someone who might be joining the Spanish Heritage Project. He seems really talented at paleography and I asked him to be my research partner.”
“Oh! That’s a good idea!”
“Well, we’ll see. I really hope he can help because I felt pretty hopeless looking at the samples of 15th century script the professor showed us. It’s barely legible.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I dunno, Grandma.” I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. “I really don’t know why you think I’m up for this. I’m a clueless little sophomore who can hardly string a sentence together in Spanish. Why can’t we just hire a researcher in Spain…”
“This is not about whether the research gets done or not, Alma.” Grandma grabbed my glasses from the table and started cleaning them with her shirt. “It’s about you doing the research. You are the heir to the legacy and whether you’re successful or not—it has to be you.”
I rested my forehead on my index finger and thumb in exasperation. “When are you going to explain what that even means, Grandma?”
“When it’s time.” She handed me my glasses, and I put them back on.
“Why all the mystery? Why can’t you just tell me the story?”
“I love mysteries.” Grandma’s eyes were twinkling. She heaved herself out of the chair to check on the couscous. “Okay, this is good. Now watch.” She emptied the steamer into a bowl, and then gently and gradually stirred in some water. “Here. This is the right consistency. See?” I looked. Looked like mush to me. “Now we let this sit for another half hour, and then we’re going to steam again.” She sat back down with a sigh and regarded me. “Oh come on, you know you love mysteries too.”
“Only when I actually have to solve them. I feel like you’re just torturing me.”
“I’m not. The truth is… I only want to tell you after you’ve found something. I just…” Her eyes glazed over. “I just don’t want to tell you unless I know there is some basis in truth.”
I sighed deeply, burying my face in my arms.
“Oh, cheer up, mi Alma. Good things come to those who wait.”
“Like couscous, for instance?”
“Exactly. Now you’re talking.” My grandmother let out a rolling laugh and reached out to muss up my hair. “Like couscous.”
This next scene took place in Alma’s apartment in Madrid.
One morning I was working on a really frustrating Spanish paper at the small wooden desk in my room when Tessa called to me from the living room.
“Come here for a sec?”
I sighed, made a dismissive gesture at my laptop and got up.
“What’s up?” I asked, poking my head out of the door and peering down the hallway. She was standing by the open door to the apartment. A uniformed man was standing there, with a big box next to him and a clipboard in his hand.
“Alma Ben-Ami?” The man asked.
“Sí…” I said. “Es para mi?”
“Sí, señorita. Firme aquí, por favor.” He offered me the clipboard and pen. I signed. “Gracias. Buenos días.”
“Gracias, adiós,” I said, staring down at the package.
“Were you expecting something?” Tessa asked, peering over at the box.
“No…” I squatted down and squinted at the cover, then smiled as I read the return address. “It’s from my grandmother.” I lifted it, grunting, surprised at how heavy it was. “Geez… what could she have sent that would be so heavy?”
I lugged it to the table and found a pair of scissors to cut through the tape. I ripped open the box and peered inside, then let out a squeal of delight.
“A couscous steamer!” I cried. I pulled it out. It looked just like the one she had used at home: a pair of nesting stainless steel pots, one with small holes in the bottom, and a tight fitting lid. Under it was, of course, a wire couscous sifter.
“And… flour?” Tessa scrunched her nose in confusion, lifting two paper packages out of the box and examining them.
“Wheat semolina. She must have thought I might not be able to get it that easily here.” I took it from her, warmth bubbling in my chest. The rest of the box contained several of my grandmother’s favorite spice and herb mixes, a jar of her homemade preserved lemons, and another jar of arissa. Tucked in the side was a little note that read,
“Just a little taste of home. Love, Grandma”
I reached into my pocket for my phone, but stopped short as a noted the time and tried counting six hours back.
“It’s like three in the morning in New York,” Tessa said. “Call her later. This stuff looks awesome.” She opened one of the bags of spice mix and sniffed. “Do you know how to make couscous from scratch?”
“Um…” I surveyed the goods. “Well, sort of… she showed me once. Problem is, she refused to give me a proper recipe.”
“I bet you can Google one.”
“Good point. But it’ll never come out like hers.”
“It won’t come out like hers no matter what you do.” Tessa smiled. “My grandmother’s Ethiopian. Trust me, I know.”
I returned the smile, carrying the box to the little cupboard in the corner of the kitchen marked “KOSHER ONLY!” where I kept my stuff.
“Well I’m looking forward to a kosher Moroccan couscous feast tonight,” Tessa winked at me. “Let’s make it after class.”
Simply put, it was a disaster. I couldn’t get the dough to be the right consistency. My little couscous pellets came out in completely different sizes, so even if they had held together, they would have cooked really unevenly. At the end, it was basically a semolina pudding the consistency of really thick mashed potatoes. I was so frustrated, I was at the verge of tears. I kept calling Grandma in a panic and she tried to explain how to fix it, but without her hands, it was futile.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said through the speakerphone on the counter as I poked at the lump of semolina. “My first couscous was pretty awful too.”
“You liar,” I accused her. “I bet your first couscous was perfect.”
“It just takes practice, Alma.”
“I like how you deflected my accusation there.”
“My first couscous wasn’t perfect. It was all right.”
“I knew it.” I flopped into a chair and buried my face in my hands.
“Hey, this isn’t so bad,” Tessa said, tasting the couscous pudding.
“It’s just semolina, oil, water and salt. You can’t really go wrong. Who are you?”
Tessa laughed. “I’m Tessa. Alma’s roommate.”
“Hi, Tessa. You know, Alma, you could add a little milk and butter and call it semolina porridge.”
“I was going to have it with chickpeas…”
“So just add some milk and salt and butter and pour the chickpeas over. It’ll be fine. You have paprika and cumin for the chickpeas, right?”
“Throw in some turmeric too. And cilantro goes without saying.”
“I’m not sure I have any. I have parsley.”
“That’ll do. Garlic?”
“You insult me, Grandma. Of course garlic.” I sighed. “I’ll take a picture of this and e-mail it to you, so you can see how badly I have failed my Moroccan ancestry.”
“Oh, Alma, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Together with the total lack of progress on the research, I’m really batting zero for two on the Sephardic heritage front.”
“Alma.” Grandma’s voice was stern. “I sent you the steamer so that you would learn, not because I was expecting you to be some kind of couscous genius. And I sent you to Spain so you would have a chance to do research, not because I was expecting you to magically uncover a story that was buried there five hundred years ago. I think you need to lower your own expectations. Sometimes, you get couscous. Sometimes, you get semolina porridge. Whatever it is, it’s what’s for dinner. Got it?”
“But, Grandma…” I sighed again, smiling a little. “It’s mushy.”
“Get over it. And don’t worry about the research. Okay?”
I didn’t answer.
“I just… I feel like… no one else is going to do this, and if I don’t succeed, the opportunity will be lost forever, and…” I bit my lip, looking uncertainly at Tessa, who appeared to be pretending not to hear as she washed dishes.
“It won’t be lost forever. If you don’t succeed we can always hire someone.” Grandma paused. “I think you’re taking this a little too seriously, child.”
I pursed my lips. “Oh, Grandma. How could I not take it seriously? You’ve been psyching me up for this my entire life. With all your mysteries and family legends and whatever. You’ve always made me feel like I’m our family’s last hope.”
There was a silence on the other end.
Finally, Grandma said, “I didn’t mean to put so much pressure on you, Alma. Really. I can’t help but be dramatic about it. I’m a Jewish grandmother, aren’t I?”
I smiled. “A Moroccan Jewish grandmother, no less.”
“Stop thinking of yourself as our family’s last hope. For Heaven’s sake. Our family is thriving and happy and I am blessed to have all of you. So far all my grandkids still identify strongly as Jewish and have some connection to our tradition and culture, and that’s more than I could hope for in this day and age, with all the interculturalism and interfaith and interwhatever. I want you to be doing this research thing for yourself, not for me. Understand?”
I nodded, then realized that she couldn’t see me over the phone. “Yes, Grandma. Thanks.”
“Listen, the delivery boy’s here and I need to tell him where to put the groceries. Enjoy your mush, mami. And cheer up.”
I giggled. “All right, Grandma.”
“Love you too.”
Want to read more deleted scenes? This one is an alternate opening to Míriam’s story.